[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: My Commuting over the Years
An account of the methods I have used to travel to school, work, and town by bus, foot, bicycle, and motor vehicle, with extra details about my bicycle transportation experiences.
Questions Why did I fail to see myself as a bicycle commuter? How do my bike commutes fail to fit the stereotype? Why has transit never supplied my commuting needs? Do I consider walking to be an important method of transportation? Why was bicycling to school a good idea even when I was within walking distance? Why would I consider some bicycling to be commuting even though I wasn't traveling to work? What was the furthest distance I ever traveled to a job? Why did I travel to work by motor vehicle for many years? How did bicycling during my college years help me get around? How would I dress when cycling to work as a construction worker? How did running errands by bike "earn" more money than keeping bees? How did I keep expenses low after returning to teaching? How has bicycle commuting helped me to retire?


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My Commuting over the Years

I did not have a bicycle commuting section before now because I failed to see myself as a real bike commuter. Back in the early 70's, Eugene Sloan wrote about commuting in his Complete Book of Bicycling, and his account was of someone getting up very early, riding ten or twenty miles down dark streets to work while wearing heated socks, and then having another long and dark commute in the evening. I never did that. First, I never had a eight to five job -- I have been a student, a teacher, a construction worker, and some other odd occupations -- all with unusual working hours, and second, I have never bicycled much farther than five miles to get to work. Usually, I would be hired before I would hunt a place to live, and I always tried to find a place within two miles. With several jobs, I was within 1/4 mile. As a result, a great deal of my commuting was as a pedestrian. Finally, several years of my commuting has not been to any job at all, as I have a place in the woods twelve miles from the supermarket, and the bike has been my primary or only transportation while living there.

But thinking about the matter more, I decided that I was looking at the matter the wrong way. During the greater part of my life, I have used the power of my own two legs to get to wherever I needed to go most of the time. Yes, there were many years -- mostly while working at construction jobs, which were widely scattered around Birmingham or up to 50 miles out of town -- when I used a motor vehicle either all of the time or nearly all of the time, but for the bulk of my life, I either walked or rode my bike. This can be summed up into different periods as follows, starting at five years old:

Fifty-One Years of Commuting

1950 - 57 Walked only.
1957 - 60 Driven to. Bussed home.
1960 - 62 Bussed to. Walked home.
1962 - 63 Walked only.
1963fall Driven.
1964 - 69 Bicycled. And walked.
1969 - 70 Drove only.
1971 - 73 Bicycling. And walking. Some driving.
1973 - 75 Mostly driving. Some bicycling.
1976 - 84 Drove only.
1985 - 89 Bicycled. Occasionally drove.
1989 - 90 Walked only.
1990 - 92 Bicycled. Occasionally walked.
1992 - 96 Walked only.
1997spring Drove only.
1997 - 00 Bicycled. Occasionally drove.
2000 - 01 Bicycled only.

NOTE: Each icon represents one year of travel by that mode; a half-icon is a half-year. These periods are based on method of local transportation, not on occupation or location or method of long-distance transportation at that time. If a year is repeated, that means that the first time period ends in the middle of the year, and the second begins in the middle of the year. If a year is not repeated, that means that the first time period ends at the end of the year, and the next begins at the start of the next year.

Local Transportation Method: Transit

I traveled by bus for five years in junior high school and high school, but only in one direction each year. Traveling on a school bus with unsupervised children has got to be one of the worst experiences in my life. After a number of bad experiences, I learned to ride only next to the front door and the bus driver, squeezed behind the hand rail. Even there, I once had a tooth knocked out. The bus was very slow as well. After I started walking to school in the morning, I would pass students waiting for the bus two miles from the school and yet always beat them there.

I never had any opposition to public transit -- in fact, I loved the streetcars in Pittsburgh -- but I never have found it useful for getting to work or school after high school, perhaps due to the general lack of public transportation in the South, and so I never used it again. Transit, then, supplied 2½ years of my transportation, all during my childhood years.

Local Transportation Method: Walking

Before I was five, I walked to school with my brother and sister for my first day of class. I was excited about what I would learn, so I asked them, "I know the world is a ball, but are we on the inside or on the outside?" They never did answer, so I still don't know.

I walked to school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and in Gadsden, Alabama, during my grade school years. Later, I walked home from high school, a distance of 2.5 miles, the farthest distance I have ever walked on a daily basis. During my senior year, I walked both ways. I also walked to school in college and in graduate school. When I got jobs teaching, I was usually able to live near or on campus, so I walked there too. I also walked to a job milking cows and another in a cotton mill. Usually, when I was close enough to the job or to school to walk, I was also close enough to a supermarket to get groceries the same way.

I highly value walking as transportation and exercise. In fact, I try to walk a couple of miles every day, no matter how much cycling I do. But except for my high school years, when I was highly motivated to avoid the bus, I have never walked much farther than a mile and a half each way to school or work. My total years of walking for transportation amounts to 18 years, half of which were during childhood.

Local Transportation Method: Bicycling

I did not use bicycling as transportation until college. Today, one finds bicycles on every campus, but back then bicycles were rare at school, at least in Alabama. That was before the days of the handy backpack too. Although I usually lived close enough to walk to class in the event of frigid weather or torrential rains, commuting to school when I lived off campus saved me a lot of time, allowing me to take a quick trip home to cook lunch, for example. The bicycle was also important for nearly daily trips to a grocery store or supermarket for food. And I used it to make occasional shopping trips as well.

I bicycled to school as a student in the 60's and again in the 90's. I also bicycled to some of my construction jobs while working in Birmingham and Jacksonville. As a teacher in Gadsden, I bicycled the 5.5 miles to school for two years in the 80's and ten years later for two years in the 90's. Also, when I lived at my place in the woods during the 80's and now in the 00's, I have used a bicycle for all transportation, so I consider that also to be commuting time, even though I was not working during those periods.

Except for the time living in the woods, where the distance is 12 miles into town, I have always lived between 1.5 and 6 miles from the job or school while bicycling. The reason is obvious, if the distance were shorter, there wouldn't be any real time saved by riding the bike, and if the distance were longer, there would be more anxiety about getting to work on time. I have 14 total years of bicycle commuting, all during adulthood.

Local Transportation Method: Car or Van

My junior high school was too far away to walk, but the next-door neighbor taught there, so I would ride in the car with him and his family in the morning and take the bus back in the evening, as he usually worked late. I also had to ride in a car to college during my first semester because it was cheaper than getting a dormitory room, and the family was short on cash at that time.

As an adult, I tried to avoid using the car for local transportation, but it wasn't always easy. When I first taught at Gadsden State, I found good places to live that were long distances from school. After that, I made sure to live as close to the job as possible. Later, when working on short construction jobs in Birmingham, I had to drive to wherever the job was, which could be up to 50 miles out of town. On one occasion only, I got a job that would last several years and found a place to live within five miles. Unfortunately, the stream of traffic was too thick and fast to allow for safe bicycling. In most other cases, the distance made cycling impossible. The 11 years I spent in the construction union with its wide-scattered jobs accounts for most of the 14½ years that I drove to work, and to this must be added the 2 years of being carried to school in a car by others.

Some Details of My Bike Trips to School and Work

While a student at Jacksonville State College, in Alabama, I purchased a three-speed bike for $44 both for recreation and to help me get around. The bike quickly proved its worth. I was able to visit a book store in Anniston, 13 miles away, where I could purchase excellent and inexpensive Modern Library books, most of which I still have. I was able to make trips to my parents' home in Gadsden, 28 miles away, saving my dad from having to make two round trips to get me. I was able to live off campus, to get my groceries from the most distant supermarket, and to visit a friend at his parents' farm. I was also able to visit places I wanted to see that were too far away to walk. On one occasion, I was digging out a section of cave before my friends could arrive, and when I went outside, I found the world blanketed with snow. And finally, I used my bike for vacations as well. Bicycling worked just as well for me at graduate school in Tuscaloosa, a much bigger town. I could shop at every store and supermarket as well as ride to school.

In January of 1971, I quit teaching, sold my motor vehicle, and went back to traveling by bicycle. I got married in March, and we lived a bicycle lifestyle together. She rode her bike to work every day, we would ride together to get groceries at the supermarket, and we made weekend bike trips to visit with her mother.

After a failed bicycle trip in '71, my wife announced that she wasn't going to ride her bike any more, and she used our "new" vehicle for charity work while I traveled to construction jobs in Birmingham by bike. The job which lasted the longest was a little construction project repairing sidewalks and drains where a new road had just been constructed. As this was about six miles from our apartment, it was perfect for cycling. I would show up in the morning, dressed as a construction worker, hard hat on head, and lunch pail strapped to the rear carrier. The workmen wondered how I could ride home after working so hard, but that was the most pleasant part of the day and very good for my legs too. In Jacksonville the next year, after a job milking cows and a job teaching school (walking in both cases), I found a job working for a local contractor, and I would ride my bike out to our various projects. The farthest job was about five miles out into the country, a very pleasant ride.

After our divorce in 1974, I tried going back to the bike while working in the Birmingham labor union, but this proved impossible, as more and more work was out of town. Still, I did manage to work downtown for a month on a ten-hour, six-day job. I would leave in the morning before most motorists were on the road and not start back home until they were gone. I also remember picking my 1½ year old son up by bicycle, which was a rare or one-time event. However, I rode him around a lot, which he dearly loved.

I rented an old house in the country near a big job, but the traffic going into work was so terrible that it was extremely dangerous to bicycle in. Everyone on the job was angry at me for attempting it. One solution would have been to have arrived very early, but we weren't allowed to carry so much as a paperback onto the job. Later when I was assigned to other duties with different hours, I was able to arrive and leave late, so I commuted by bicycle again. I don't remember how long these bicycle commutes lasted, which suggests to me that it was not long.

In December of 1984, our construction job was shut down at Christmas time. I moved to my place in the woods and began to try to make a living off of my honey bees, which I had slowly been increasing for ten years. Unfortunately, Reagan agreed to unlimited importation of Chinese honey and immediately started releasing the US stockpile of honey to retired people and people on food stamps, so I found myself unable to sell honey. However, I was able to reduce my expenses to $150 a month by using the bicycle for all transportation and letting my van grow cobwebs. I even used my bike to make trips to visit my son 90 miles away, making eleven bike trips from 1986 to 1988 to see him and making additional trips to see my parents, 75 miles away.

In 1987-89, I taught school in Gadsden again, but for part-time pay. To keep my expenses low, I stayed at my parents' house and rode my bike five and a half miles to school to work, keeping suits, pants, and shirts in my office. Gadsden State had a four-day school week so, when not visiting with my son, I would drive home to my place in the woods for a long weekend, using the bike for all travel after I got there. In the fall of 1988, the weather was suitable, so I made eight of my weekend trips by bicycle, a total of 1,200 miles.

In 1990-92, after teaching full-time in Kentucky (where I lived on campus and walked to school), I returned to graduate school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The work was difficult, and I had little spare time, so my bike trips to school -- besides being quicker than walking -- gave me badly needed stress relief. Once or twice a week, I would ride out to the mall and visit the stores, my only entertainment.

My next job and next graduate school were more suited to walking, so I next returned to bicycle commuting in 1997. However, during this year, I didn't go to school or work but concentrated on the internet, but I did make a ten mile round trip every day for fresh hot bread and other food.

In 1998-2000, I worked at Gadsden State again. It was no longer necessary for me to wear a suit, and I no longer had an office, but it was the exact same 5.5 mile ride, except I noticed I was five minutes slower than ten years earlier. Because I could not change clothes after I arrived, I would always arrive early and give myself a quick sponge bath and a chance to cool down.

In the fall of 2000, I returned to my place in the woods. Because I have no rent, utilities, or motor vehicle expenses, I have been able to retire early. However, every third day, I must make a 12-mile trip to Scottsboro to get lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. I am extremely happy, and my only problem lies in finding enough time to write.


One Man's Commute  Frank Kygrowski explains in detail what his bicycle trip to work is like.

How the Staff of Bicycling Life Get to Work  The daily commutes of four cyclists.

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